Every president looks better as soon as he's out of office, if only because we can stop worrying then that he'll be the one who finally blows everything up. But real nostalgia doesn't kick in until later, when even members of the other party start to cast their gaze backward and long wistfully for a man whose face they used to use as a dartboard. It happened with Ronald Reagan, it happened with Bill Clinton, and as of the summer of 2010 it is happening with George W. Bush.
The change was already underway in July, when Talking Points Memo aired the idea that Bush's exit had unleashed the right's hatred of Muslims. ("His being President and the nominal head of the GOP basically kept a lid on many of the fanatical Islamophobes...The Islamophobes no longer have anyone from up high to keep them quiet.") By mid-August, a Politico story was spreading the idea that "Republican leaders have largely abandoned former President George W. Bush's post-Sept. 11 rhetorical embrace of American Muslims and his insistence -- always controversial inside the party -- that Islam is a religion of peace." Before long, it was possible to find the phrase "George W. Bush understood this" in a Maureen Dowd column, which is a bit like finding an argument for tax cuts in a Tom Frank column, an antiwar elegy in a Bill Kristol column, or a moment of humility in a Thomas Friedman column.
There's some truth to the TPM argument. Bush did make a special effort to reach out to Muslims, and not just in the aftermath of September 11. In an essay for Foreign Policy, Suhail Khan describes Bush's rapport with Islamic voters in 2000, back when 911 was just a phone number:
Muslim Americans are, by and large, both socially and economically conservative. Sixty-one percent of them would ban abortion except to save the life of the mother; 84 percent support school choice. Muslims overwhelmingly support traditional marriage. More than a quarter -- over twice the national average -- are self-employed small-business owners, and most support reducing taxes and the abolition of the estate tax. By all rights they should be Republicans -- and not long ago they were. American Muslims voted two to one for George H.W. Bush in 1992. While they went for Bill Clinton by the same margin in 1996, they were brought back into the Republican fold in 2000 by George W. Bush.
If Clinton was, as the author Toni Morrison once quipped, America's first black president, Bush was, at least momentarily, the country's first Muslim president. As early as 1999, he hosted a series of meetings between Muslim and Republican leaders, and paid a visit himself to an Islamic center in Michigan -- the first and only major presidential candidate to do so. The 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia was the first in either national party's history to include a Muslim prayer. On the campaign trail, Bush celebrated the faith of Americans who regularly attended a "church, synagogue, or mosque." After Muslim community leaders told him of their civil liberties concerns over a piece of 1996 immigration enforcement legislation signed into law by Clinton, Bush criticized it himself in one of his presidential debates against Vice President Al Gore.
The work paid off. By election day, Bush had been endorsed by eight major Muslim American organizations. He won more than 70 percent of the Muslim vote, including 46,200 ballots in Florida alone, prompting longtime conservative activist Grover Norquist -- one of the few prominent movement figures to caution against the current wave of mosque demagoguery -- to proclaim in the American Spectator that "Bush was elected President of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote."
But Khan also reports that the Muslim vote was already shifting back into the Democratic column in 2004, and that Barack Obama captured nearly 90 percent of America's Islamic ballots in 2008. While the elder George Bush attracted Muslim voters in office -- by, for example, being careful not to tilt heavily to one side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- his son started with strong Muslim support and lost it. That's partly a product of the president's policies. But it also surely reflects something else that Khan demonstrates, a fact that undermines the TPM theory: While W. did his best to keep anti-Muslim rhetoric out of his administration, he couldn't really restrain such sentiments in the larger conservative movement. (The TPM argument also fails to explain why these religious tensions didn't explode until Bush had been out of office for over a year. It's not as though the right-wing grassroots were quiet during that time, but before this summer almost all of their energy went into economic issues.)
Khan does not show, incidentally, that the Republicans have lost the Muslim vote for good. It's not as though the Democratic Party has been making Muslims welcome. As Khan points out, Obama didn't exactly reach out to Muslims in 2008. ("If the Republican candidates treated Muslims as the enemy, the Obama campaign treated them like untouchables, keeping the Democratic candidate's Muslim supporters at arm's length throughout the election.") During the 2006 hysteria over Dubai Ports World, the most vocal xenophobes were Democrats such as Chuck Schumer, who thought the prospect of an Arab company managing American ports would be a good opening to attack Bush on national security grounds. More recently, Republicans may have taken the lead in condemning Cordoba House, but relatively few elected Democrats have risen to defend the project. That led the liberal writer Adam Serwer to argue that the Dems have done nothing to earn lasting Muslim support:
The [pre-'60s] Democratic Party's virulent racism did not prevent black Americans from flocking to the Democratic Party when the Republican Party proved unable or unwilling to mount forceful defenses of black rights. There is no reason to believe that a Democratic Party that has been as timid as this one in defending the rights of Muslims and Latinos can expect their loyalties simply because the other party has been hostile to them. History suggests the opposite is true, and as bad as today's GOP is, they are no where near as racist as the Democratic Party once was.
Calvin Coolidge was a vocal defender of civil rights, but most black people don't look back at the Coolidge administration and think, "That's why I'm a Republican." Lyndon Johnson didn't just give a speech; he passed the most wide-reaching and comprehensive civil-rights legislation in American history. What has Obama done for Latinos or Muslims that is even remotely comparable?
In the last two decades, the Muslim vote has gone from the Republicans to the Democrats to the Republicans and then back to the Democrats again. It's still up for grabs today, though we might have to wait til an election where Dearborn plays the role of West Palm Beach before either party decides it's a constituency worth pursuing.
Update: Having written that "relatively few elected Democrats have risen to defend" Park51, I should give credit to the ones who have.